Posts Tagged ‘Human Nature’

I put aside Harari’s book from the previous blog post in favor of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger: A History of the Present (2017). Mishra’s sharp cultural criticism is far more convincing than Harari’s Panglossian perspective. Perhaps some of that is due to an inescapable pessimism in my own character. Either way, I’ve found the first 35 pages dense with observations of interest to me as a blogger and armchair cultural critic. Some while back, I published a post attempting to delineate (not very well, probably) what’s missing in the modern world despite its obvious material abundance. Reinforcing my own contentions, Mishra’s thesis (as I understand it so far) is this: we today share with others post-Enlightenment an array of resentments and hatreds (Fr.: ressentiment) aimed incorrectly at scapegoats for political and social failure to deliver the promises of progressive modernity equitably. For instance, Mishra describes

… flamboyant secular radicals in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the aesthetes who glorified war, misogyny and pyromania; the nationalists who accused Jews and liberals of rootless cosmopolitanism and celebrated irrational violence; and the nihilists, anarchists and terrorists who flourished in almost every continent against a background of cosy political-financial alliances, devastating economic crises and obscene inequalities. [pp. 10–11]

Contrast and/or compare his assessment of the recent past:

Beginning in the 1990s, a democratic revolution of aspiration … swept across the world, sparking longings for wealth, status and power, in addition to ordinary desires for stability and contentment, in the most unpromising circumstances. Egalitarian ambition broke free of old social hierarchies … The culture of [frantic] individualism went universal … The crises of recent years have uncovered an extensive failure to realize the ideals of endless economic expansion and private wealth creation. Most newly created ‘individuals’ toil within poorly imagined social and political communities and/or states with weakening sovereignty … individuals with very different pasts find themselves herded by capitalism and technology into a common present, where grossly unequal distributions of wealth and power have created humiliating new hierarchies. This proximity … is rendered more claustrophobic by digital communications … [S]hocks of modernity were once absorbed by inherited social structures of family and community, and the state’s welfare cushions [something mentioned here, too]. Today’s individuals are directly exposed to them in an age of accelerating competition on uneven playing fields, where it is easy to feel that there is no such thing as either society or state, and that there is only a war of all against all. [pp. 12–14]

These long quotes (the second one cut together from longer paragraphs) are here because Mishra is remarkably eloquent in his diagnosis of globalized culture. Although I’ve only read the prologue, I expect to find support for my long-held contention that disorienting disruptions of modernity (using Anthony Giddens’ sociological definition rather than the modish use of the term Postmodern to describe only the last few decades) create unique and formidable challenges to the formation of healthy self-image and personhood. Foremost among these challenges is an unexpectedly oppressive information environment: the world forced into full view and inciting comparison, jealousy, envy, and hatred stemming from routine and ubiquitous frustrations and humiliations as we each struggle in life getting our personal share of attention, renown, and reward.

Another reason Mishra provides for our collective anger is a deep human yearning not for anarchism or radical freedom but rather for belonging and absorption within a meaningful social context. This reminds me of Erich Fromm’s book Escape from Freedom (1941), which I read long ago but can’t remember so well anymore. I do remember quite vividly how counter-intuitive was the suggestion that absolute freedom is actually burdensome as distinguished from the usual programming we get about breaking free of all restraints. (Freedom! Liberty!) Indeed, Mishra provides a snapshot of multiple cultural and intellectual movements from the past two centuries where abandoning oneself to a cause, any cause, was preferable to the boredom and nothingness of everyday life absent purpose other than mere existence. The modern substitute for larger purpose — commodity culture — is a mere shadow of better ways of spending one’s life. Maybe commodity culture is better than sacrificing one’s life fighting wars (a common fate) or destroying others, but that’s a much longer, more difficult argument.

More to follow as my reading progresses.

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As I reread what I wrote 2.5 years ago in my first blog on this topic, I surmise that the only update needed to my initial assessment is a growing pile of events that demonstrate my thesis: our corrupted information environment is too taxing on human cognition, with the result that a small but growing segment of society gets radicalized (wound up like a spring) and relatively random individuals inevitably pop, typically in a self-annihilating gush of violence. News reports bear this out periodically, as one lone-wolf kook after another takes it upon himself (are there any examples of females doing this?) to shoot or blow up some target, typically chosen irrationally or randomly though for symbolic effect. More journalists and bloggers are taking note of this activity and evolving or resurrecting nomenclature to describe it.

The earliest example I’ve found offering nomenclature for this phenomenon is a blog with a single post from 2011 (oddly, no follow-up) describing so-called stochastic terrorism. Other terms include syntactic violence, semantic violence, and epistemic violence, but they all revolve around the same point. Whether on the sending or receiving end of communications, some individuals are particularly adept at or sensitive to dog whistles that over time activate and exacerbate tendencies toward radical ideology and violence. Wired has a brief article from a few days ago discussing stochastic terrorism as jargon, which is basically what I’m doing here. Admittedly, the last of these terms, epistemic violence (alternative: epistemological violence), ranges farther afield from the end effect I’m calling wind-up toys. For instance, this article discussing structural violence is much more academic in character than when I blogged on the same term (one of a handful of “greatest hits” for this blog that return search-engine hits with some regularity). Indeed, just about any of my themes and topics can be given a dry, academic treatment. That’s not my approach (I gather opinions differ on this account, but I insist that real academic work is fundamentally different from my armchair cultural criticism), but it’s entirely valid despite being a bit remote for most readers. One can easily get lost down the rabbit hole of analysis.

If indeed it’s mere words and rhetoric that transform otherwise normal people into criminals and mass murderers, then I suppose I can understand the distorted logic of the far Left that equates words and rhetoric themselves with violence, followed by the demand that they be provided with warnings and safe spaces lest they be triggered by what they hear, read, or learn. As I understand it, the fear is not so much that vulnerable, credulous folks will be magically turned into automatons wound up and set loose in public to enact violent agendas but instead that virulent ideas and knowledge (including many awful truths of history) might cause discomfort and psychological collapse akin to what happens to when targets of hate speech and death threats are reduced, say, to quivering agoraphobia. Desire for protection from harm is thus understandable. The problem with such logic, though, is that protections immediately run afoul of free speech, a hallowed but misunderstood American institution that preempts quite a few restrictions many would have placed on the public sphere. Protections also stall learning and truth-seeking straight out of the gate. And besides, preemption of preemption doesn’t work.

In information theory, the notion of a caustic idea taking hold of an unwilling person and having its wicked way with him or her is what’s called a mind virus or meme. The viral metaphor accounts for the infectious nature of ideas as they propagate through the culture. For instance, every once in a while, a charismatic cult emerges and inducts new members, a suicide cluster appears, or suburban housewives develop wildly disproportionate phobias about Muslims or immigrants (or worse, Muslim immigrants!) poised at their doorsteps with intentions of rape and murder. Inflaming these phobias, often done by pundits and politicians, is precisely the point of semantic violence. Everyone is targeted but only a few are affected to the extreme of acting out violently. Milder but still invalid responses include the usual bigotries: nationalism, racism, sexism, and all forms of tribalism, “othering,” or xenophobia that seek to insulate oneself safely among like folks.

Extending the viral metaphor, to protect oneself from infectious ideas requires exposure, not insulation. Think of it as a healthy immune system built up gradually, typically early in life, through slow, steady exposure to harm. The alternative is hiding oneself away from germs and disease, which has the ironic result of weakening the immune system. For instance, I learned recently that peanut allergies can be overcome by gradual exposure — a desensitization process — but are exacerbated by removal of peanuts from one’s environment and/or diet. This is what folks mean when they say the answer to hate speech is yet more (free) speech. The nasty stuff can’t be dealt with properly when it’s quarantined, hidden away, suppressed, or criminalized. Maybe there are exceptions. Science fiction entertains those dangers with some regularity, where minds are shunted aside to become hosts for invaders of some sort. That might be overstating the danger somewhat, but violent eruptions may provide some credence.

Several politicians on the U.S. national stage have emerged in the past few years as firebrands of new politics and ideas about leadership — some salutary, others less so. Perhaps the quintessential example is Bernie Sanders, who identified himself as Socialist within the Democratic Party, a tacit acknowledgement that there are no electable third-party candidates for high office thus far. Even 45’s emergence as a de facto independent candidate within the Republican Party points to the same effect (and at roughly the same time). Ross Perot and Ralph Nader came closest in recent U.S. politics to establishing viable candidacies outside the two-party system, but their ultimate failures only reinforce the rigidity of modern party politics; it’s a closed system.

Those infusing energy and new (OK, in truth, they’re old) ideas into this closed system are intriguing. By virtue of his immediate name/brand recognition, Bernie Sanders can now go by his single given name (same is true of Hillary, Donald, and others). Supporters of Bernie’s version of Democratic Socialism are thus known as Bernie Bros, though the term is meant pejoratively. Considering his age, however, Bernie is not widely considered a viable presidential candidate in the next election cycle. Among other firebrands, I was surprised to find Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (often referred to simply as AOC) described in the video embedded below as a Democratic Socialist but without any reference to Bernie (“single-handedly galvanized the American people”):

Despite the generation(s) gap, young adults had no trouble supporting Bernie three years ago but appear to have shifted their ardent support to AOC. Yet Bernie is still relevant and makes frequent statements demonstrating how well he understands the failings of the modern state, its support of the status quo, and the cult of personality behind certain high-profile politicians.

As I reflect on history, it occurs to me that many of the major advances in society (e.g., abolition, suffrage, the labor movement, civil rights, equal rights and abortion, and the end of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War) occurred not because our government led us to them but because the American people forced the issues. The most recent examples of the government yielding to the will of the people are gay marriage and cannabis/hemp legalization (still underway). I would venture that Johnson and Nixon were the last U.S. presidents who experienced palpable fear of the public. (Claims that Democrats are afraid of AOC ring hollow — so far.) As time has worn on, later presidents have been confident in their ability to buffalo the public or at least to use the power of the state to quell unrest (e.g., the Occupy movement). (Modern means of crowd control raise serious questions about the legitimacy of any government that would use them against its own citizens. I would include enemy combatants, but that is a separate issue.) In contrast with salutary examples of the public using its disruptive power over a recalcitrant government are arguably more examples where things went haywire rather badly. Looking beyond the U.S., the French Reign of Terror and the Bolsheviks are the two examples that leap immediately to mind, but there are plenty of others. The pattern appears to be a populist ideology that takes root and turns virulent and violent followed by consolidation of power by those who mange to survive the inevitable purge of dissidents.

I bring this up because we’re in a period of U.S. history characterized by populist ideological possession on both sides (left/right) of the political continuum, though politics ought to be better understood as a spectrum. Extremism has again found a home (or several), and although the early stages appear to be mild or harmless, I fear that a charismatic leader might unwittingly succeed in raising a mob. As the saying goes (from the Indiana Jones movie franchise), “You are meddling with forces you cannot possibly comprehend,” to which I would add cannot control. Positioning oneself at the head of a movement or rallying behind such an opportunist may feel like the right thing to do but could easily and quickly veer into wildly unintended consequences. How many times in history has that already occurred?

For ambulatory creatures, vision is arguably the primary sense of the five (main) senses. Humans are among those species that stand upright, facilitating a portrait orientation when interacting among ourselves. The terrestrial environment on which we live, however, is in landscape (as distinguished from the more nearly 3D environments of birds and insects in flight or marine life in rivers, lakes, seas, and oceans). My suspicion is that modest visual conflict between portrait and landscape is among the dynamics that give rise to the orienting response, a step down from the startle reflex, that demands full attention when visual environments change.

I recall reading somewhere that wholesale changes in surroundings, such as when crossing a threshold, passing through a doorway, entering or exiting a tunnel, and notably, entering and exiting an elevator, trigger the orienting response. Indeed, the flush of disorientation before one gets his or her bearings is tantamount to a mind wipe, at least momentarily. This response may also help to explain why small, bounded spaces such as interiors of vehicles (large and small) in motion feel like safe, contained, hermetically sealed personal spaces. We orient visually and kinesthetically at the level of the interior, often seated and immobile, rather than at the level of the outer landscape being traversed by the vehicle. This is true, too, of elevators, a modern contraption that confounds the nervous system almost as much as revolving doors — particularly noticeable with small children and pets until they become habituated to managing such doorways with foreknowledge of what lies beyond.

The built environment has historically included transitional spaces between inner and outer environments. Churches and cathedrals include a vestibule or narthex between the exterior door and inner door leading to the church interior or nave. Additional boundaries in church architecture mark increasing levels of hierarchy and intimacy, just as entryways of domiciles give way to increasingly personal spaces: parlor or sitting room, living room, dining room, kitchen, and bedroom. (The sheer utility of the “necessary” room defies these conventions.) Commercial and entertainment spaces use lobbies, atria, and prosceniums in similar fashion.

What most interests me, however, is the transitional space outside of buildings. This came up in a recent conversation, where I observed that local school buildings from the early to middle part of the 20th century have a distinguished architecture set well back from the street where lawns, plazas, sidewalks, and porches leading to entrances function as transitional spaces and encourage social interaction. Ample window space, columnar entryways, and roof embellishments such as dormers, finials, cupolas, and cornices add style and character befitting dignified public buildings. In contrast, 21st-century school buildings in particular and public buildings in general, at least in the city where I live, tend toward porchless big-box warehouses built right up to the sidewalk, essentially robbing denizens of their social space. Blank, institutional walls forbid rather than invite. Consider, for example, how students gathered in a transitional space are unproblematic, whereas those congregated outside a school entrance abutting a narrow sidewalk suggest either a gauntlet to be run or an eruption of violence in the offing. (Or maybe they’re just smoking.) Anyone forced to climb past loiterers outside a commercial establishment experiences similar suspicions and discomforts.

Beautifully designed and constructed public spaces of yore — demonstrations of a sophisticated appreciation of both function and intent — have fallen out of fashion. Maybe they understood then how transitional spaces ease the orientation response, or maybe they only intuited it. Hard to say. Architectural designs of the past acknowledged and accommodated social functions and sophisticated aesthetics that are today actively discouraged except for pointless stunt architecture that usually turns into boondoggles for taxpayers. This has been the experience of many municipalities when replacing or upgrading schools, transit centers, sports arenas, and public parks. Efficient land use today drives toward omission of transitional space. One of my regular reads is James Howard Kunstler’s Eyesore of the Month, which profiles one architectural misfire after the next. He often mocks the lack of transitional space, or when present, observes its open hostility to pedestrian use, including unnecessary obstacles and proximity to vehicular traffic (noise, noxious exhaust, and questionable safety) discouraging use. Chalk this up as another collapsed art (e.g., painting, music, literature, and poetry) so desperate to deny the past and establish new aesthetics that it has ruined itself.

As a student, practitioner, and patron of the fine arts, I long ago imbibed the sybaritic imploration that beauty and meaning drawn out of sensory stimulation were a significant source of enjoyment, a high calling even. Accordingly, learning to decode and appreciate the conventions of various forms of expression required effort, which was repaid and deepened over a lifetime of experience. I recognize that, because of their former close association with the European aristocracy and American moneyed class, the fine arts (Western genres) have never quite distanced themselves from charges of elitism. However, I’ve always rejected that perspective. Since the latter part of the 20th century, the fine arts have never been more available to people of all walks of life, as crowds at art galleries attest.

Beyond the fine arts, I also recognize that people have a choice of aesthetics. Maybe it’s the pageantry of sports (including the primal ferocity of combat sports); the gastronomic delight of a fine meal, liquor, or cigar; identification with a famous brand; the pampered lifestyles of the rich and famous, with their premium services, personal staffs, and entourages; the sound of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle or a 1970s American muscle car; the sartorial appointments of high fashion and couture; simple biophilia; the capabilities of a smartphone or other tech device; or the brutal rhetoric and racehorse politics of the campaign trail. Take your pick. In no way do I consider the choice of one aesthetic versus another equivalent. Differences of quality and intent are so obvious that any relativist claim asserting false equivalence ought to be dismissed out of hand. However, there is considerable leeway. One of my teachers summed up taste variance handily: “that’s why they make chocolate and vanilla.”

Beauty and meaning are not interchangeable, but they are often sloppily conflated. The meaning found in earnest striving and sacrifice is a quintessential substitute for beauty. Thus, we’re routinely instructed to honor our troops for their service. Patriotic holidays (Independence Day, Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and others) form a thematic group. Considering how the media reflexively valorizes (rarely deploring) acts of force and mayhem authorized and carried out by the state, and how the citizenry takes that instruction and repeats it, it’s fair to say that an aesthetic attaches to such activity. For instance, some remember (with varying degrees of disgust) news anchor Brian Williams waxing rhapsodic over the Syrian conflict. Perhaps Chris Hedges’ book War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning provides greater context. I haven’t read the book, but the title is awfully provocative, which some read as an encomium to war. Book jacket blurbs and reviews indicate more circumspect arguments drawn from Hedges’ experience as a war correspondent.

We’re currently in the so-called season of giving. No one can escape anymore marketing harangues about Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday that launch the season. None of those days have much integrity, not that they ever did, since they bleed into each other as retailers strain to get a jump on one or extend another. We’re a thoroughly consumer society, which is itself an aesthetic (maybe I should have written anesthetic). Purchasing decisions are made according to a choice of aesthetics: brand, features, looks, price, etc. An elaborate machinery of psychological prods and inducements has been developed over the decades to influence consumer behavior. (A subgenre of psychology also studies these influences and behaviors.) The same can be said of the shaping of consumer citizen opinion. While some resist being channeled into others’ prescribed thought worlds, the difficulty of maintaining truly original, independent thought in the face of a deluge of both reasonable and bad-faith influence makes succumbing nearly inevitable. Under such condition, one wonders if choice of aesthetic even really exists.

Heard a curious phrase used with some regularity lately, namely, that “we’ve Nerfed the world.” Nerf refers to the soft, foam toys popular in the 70s and beyond that made balls and projectiles essentially harmless. The implication of the phrase is that we’ve become soft and vulnerable as a result of removing the routine hazards (physical and psychological) of existence. For instance, in the early days of cell phones, I recall padded street poles (like endzone goalposts) to prevent folks with their attention fixated too intently on their phones from harming themselves when stumbling blindly down the sidewalk.

Similarly, anti-bullying sentiment has reached fevered pitch such that no level of discomfort (e.g., simple name calling) can be tolerated lest the victim be scarred for life. The balancing point between preparing children for competitive realities of the world and protecting their innocence and fragility has accordingly moved heavily in favor of the latter. Folks who never develop the resilience to suffer even modest hardships are snowflakes, and they agitate these days on college campuses (and increasingly in workplaces) to withdraw into safe spaces where their beliefs are never challenged and experiences are never challenging. The other extreme is a hostile, cruel, or at least indifferent world where no one is offered support or opportunity unless he or she falls within some special category, typically connected through family to wealth and influence. Those are entitled.

A thermostatic response (see Neil Postman for more on this metaphor) is called for here. When things veer too far toward one extreme or the other, a correction is inevitable. Neither extreme is healthy for a functioning society, though the motivations are understandable. Either it’s toughen people up by providing challenge, which risks brutalizing people unnecessarily, or protect people from the rigors of life or consequences of their own choices to such a degree that they become dependent or dysfunctional. Where the proper balance lies is a question for the ages, but I daresay most would agree it’s somewhere squarely in the middle.

Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff have a new book out called The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (2018), which is an expansion of an earlier article in The Atlantic of the same title. (Both are callbacks to Allan Bloom’s notorious The Closing of the American Mind (1987), which I’ve read twice. Similar reuse of a famous title references Robert Bork’s Slouching Toward Gomorrah (1996).) I haven’t yet read Haidt’s book and doubt I will bother, but I read the source article when it came out. I also don’t work on a college campus and can’t judge contemporary mood compared to when I was an undergraduate, but I’m familiar with the buzzwords and ​intellectual fashions reported by academics and journalists. My alma mater is embroiled in these battles, largely in connection with identity politics. I’m also aware of detractors who believe claims of Haidt and Lukianoff (and others) are essentially hysterics limited to a narrow group of progressive colleges and universities.

As with other cultural developments that lie outside my expertise, I punt when it comes to offering (too) strong opinions. However, with this particular issue, I can’t help but to think that the two extremes coexist. A noisy group of students attending highly competitive institutions of higher education lead relatively privileged lives compared to those outside the academy, whereas high school grads and dropouts not on that track (and indeed grads of less elite schools) frequently struggle getting their lives going in early adulthood. Most of us face that struggle early on, but success, despite nonsensical crowing about the “best economy ever” from the Oval Office, is difficult to achieve now as the broad socioeconomic middle is pushed toward the upper and lower margins (mostly lower). Stock market notwithstanding, economic reality is frankly indifferent to ideology.

See this post on Seven Billion Day only a few years ago as a launching point. We’re now closing in on 7.5 billion people worldwide according to the U.S. Census Bureau. At least one other counter indicates we’ve already crossed that threshold. What used to be called the population explosion or the population bomb has lost its urgency and become generically population growth. By now, application of euphemism to mask intractable problems should be familiar to everyone. I daresay few are fooled, though plenty are calmed enough to stop paying attention. If there is anything to be done to restrain ourselves from proceeding down this easily recognized path to self-destruction, I don’t know what it is. The unwillingness to accept restraints in other aspects of human behavior demonstrate pretty well that consequences be damned — especially if they’re far enough delayed in time that we get to enjoy the here and now.

Two additional links (here and here) provide abundant further information on population growth if one desired to delve more deeply into the topic. The tone of these sites is sober, measured, and academic. As with climate change, hysterical and panic-provoking alarmism is avoided, but dangers known decades and centuries ago have persisted without serious redress. While it’s true that growth rate (a/k/a replacement rate) has decreased considerably since its peak in 1960 or so (the height of the postwar baby boom), absolute numbers continue to climb. The lack of immediate concern reminds me of Al Bartlett’s articles and lectures on the failure to understand the exponential function in math (mentioned in my prior post). Sure, boring old math about which few care. The metaphor that applies is yeast growing in a culture with a doubling factor that makes everything look just peachy until the final doubling that kills everything. In this metaphor, people are the unthinking yeast that believe there’s plenty of room and food and other resources in the culture (i.e., on the planet) and keep consuming and reproducing until everyone dies en mass. How far away in time that final human doubling is no one really knows.

Which brings me to something rather ugly: hearings to confirm Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. No doubt conservative Republican presidents nominate similarly conservative judges just as Democratic presidents nominate progressive centrist judges. That’s to be expected. However, Kavanaugh is being asked pointed questions about settled law and legal precedents perpetually under attack by more extreme elements of the right wing, including Roe v. Wade from 1973. Were we (in the U.S.) to revisit that decision and remove legal abortion (already heavily restricted), public outcry would be horrific, to say nothing of the return of so-called back-alley abortions. Almost no one undertakes such actions lightly. A look back through history, however, reveals a wide range of methods to forestall pregnancy, end pregnancies early, and/or end newborn life quickly (infanticide). Although repugnant to almost everyone, attempts to legislate abortion out of existence and/or punish lawbreakers will succeed no better than did Prohibition or the War Against Drugs. (Same can be said of premarital and underage sex.) Certain aspects of human behavior are frankly indelible despite the moral indignation of one or another political wing. Whether Kavanaugh truly represents the linchpin that will bring new upheavals is impossible to know with certainty. Stay tuned, I guess.

Abortion rights matter quite a lot when placed in context with population growth. Aggregate human behaviors drive out of existence all sorts of plant and animal populations routinely. This includes human populations (domestic and foreign) reduced to abject poverty and mad, often criminal scrambles for survival. The view from on high is that those whose lives fall below some measure of worthwhile contribution are useless eaters. (I don’t recommend delving deeper into that term; it’s a particularly ugly ideology with a long, tawdry history.) Yet removing abortion rights would almost certainly  swell those ranks. Add this topic to the growing list of things I just don’t get.

I mentioned blurred categories in music a short while back. An interesting newsbit popped up in the New York Times recently about this topic. Seems a political science professor at SUNY New Paltz, Gerald Benjamin, spoke up against a Democratic congressional candidate for New York’s 18th district, Antonio Delgado, the latter of whom had been a rapper. Controversially, Benjamin said that rap is not real music and does not represent the values of rural New York. Naturally, the Republican incumbent got in on the act, too, with denunciations and attacks. The electoral politics angle doesn’t much interest me; I’m not in or from the district. Moreover, the racial and/or racist elements are so toxic I simply refuse to wade in. But the professorial pronouncement that rap music isn’t really music piqued my interest, especially because that argument caused the professor to be sanctioned by his university. Public apologies and disclaimers were issued all around.

Events also sparked a fairly robust commentary at Slipped Disc. The initial comment by V.Lind echoes my thinking pretty well:

Nobody is denying that hip-hop is culturally significant. As such it merits study — I have acknowledged this … The mystery is its claims to musical credibility. Whatever importance rap has is in its lyrics, its messages (which are far from universally salutory [sic]) and its general attempt to self-define certain communities — usually those with grievances, but also those prepared to develop through violence, sexism and other unlovely aspects. These are slices of life, and as such warrant some attention. Some of the grievances are well-warranted …

But music? Not. I know people who swear by this genre, and their ears are incapable of discerning anything musical in any other. If they wanted to call it poetry (which I daresay upon scrutiny would be pretty bad poetry) it would be on stronger legs. But it is a “music” by and for the unmusical, and it is draining the possibility of any other music out of society as the ears that listen to it hear the same thing, aside from the words, for years on end.

Definitely something worth studying. How the hell has this managed to become a dominant force in what is broadly referred to as the popular music world?

The last time (as memory serves) categories or genres blurred leading to outrage was when Roger Ebert proclaimed that video games are not art (and by inference that cinema is art). Most of us didn’t really care one way or the other where some entertainment slots into a category, but gamers in particular were scandalized. In short, their own ox was gored. But when it came to video games as art, there were no racial undertones, so the sometimes heated debate was at least free of that scourge. Eventually, definitions were liberalized, Ebert acknowledged the opposing opinion (I don’t think he was ever truly convinced, but I honestly can’t remember — and besides, who cares?), and it all subsided.

The impulse to mark hard, discrete boundaries between categories and keep unlike things from touching is pretty foolish to me. It’s as though we’re arguing about the mashed potatoes and peas not infecting each other on the dinner plate with their cooties. Never mind that it all ends up mixed in the digestive tract before finally reemerging as, well, you know. Motivation to keep some things out is no doubt due to prestige and cachet, where the apparent interloper threatens to change the status quo somehow, typically infecting it with undesirable and/or impure elements. We recognize this fairly readily as in-group and out-group, an adolescent game that ramps up, for instance, when girls and boys begin to differentiate in earnest at the onset of puberty. Of course, in the last decade, so-called identitarians have been quite noisome about their tribal affiliations self-proclaimed identities, many falling far, far out of the mainstream, and have demanded they be taken seriously and/or granted status as a protected class.

All this extends well beyond the initial topic of musical or artistic styles and genres. Should be obvious, though, that we can’t escape labels and categories. They’re a basic part of cognition. If they weren’t, one would have to invent them at every turn when confronting the world, judging safe/unsafe, friend/foe, edible/inedible, etc. just to name a few binary categories. Complications multiply quickly when intermediary categories are present (race is the most immediate example, where most of us are mixtures or mutts despite whatever our outer appearance may be) or categories are blurred. Must we all then rush to restore stability to our understanding of the world by hardening our mental categories?

An ongoing conflict in sociology and anthropology exists between those who believe that human nature is competitive and brutal to the bitter end versus those who believe human nature is more cooperative and sociable, sharing resources of all types to secure the greater good. This might be recognizable to some as the perennial friction between citizen and society (alternatively, individualism and collectivism). Convincing evidence from human prehistory is difficult to uncover. Accordingly, much of the argument for competition comes from evolutionary biology, where concepts such as genetic fitness and reproductive success (and by inference, reproductive failure) are believed to motivate and justify behavior across the board. As the typical argument goes, inferior genes and males in particular who lack sexual access or otherwise fail to secure mates don’t survive into the next generation. Attributes passed onto each subsequent generation thus favor fitter, Type A brutes who out-compete weaker (read: more cooperative) candidates in an endless self-reinforcing and narrowing cycle. The alternative offered by others points to a wider gene pool based on collaboration and sharing of resources (including mates) that enables populations to thrive together better than individuals who attempt to go it alone or dominate.

Not having undertaken a formal study of anthropology (or more broadly, primatology), I can’t say how well this issue is settled in the professional, academic literature. Online, I often see explanations that are really just-so stories based on logic. What that means is that an ideal or guiding principle is described, something that just “makes sense,” and supporting evidence is then assumed or projected. For instance, we now know many of the mechanisms that function at the cellular level with respect to reproduction and genetic evolution. Those mechanisms are typically spun up to the level of the organism through pure argumentation and presumed to manifest in individual behaviors. Any discontinuity between aggregate characteristics and particular instances is ignored. Questions are solved through ideation (i.e., thought experiments). However, series of if-then statements that seem plausible when confronted initially often turn out to be pure conjecture rather than evidence. That’s a just-so story.

One of the reasons we look into prehistory for evidence of our true nature (understood as biology, not sociology, handily sweeping aside the nature/nurture question) is that hunter-gatherers (HGs) lived at subsistence level for a far longer period of our evolutionary history than our comparatively brief time within the bounty of civilization. It’s only when surpluses and excesses provide something worth hoarding, monopolizing, and protecting that hierarchies arise and/or leveling mechanisms are relaxed. Leaving Babylon has a discussion of this here. Some few HG cultures survive into the 21st century, but for most of us, The Agricultural Revolution is the branching point when competition began to assert itself, displacing sharing and other egalitarian impulses. Accordingly, the dog-eat-dog competition and inequality characteristic of the modern world is regarded by many as an exaptation, not our underlying nature.

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Continuing from part 1, which is altogether too much screed and frustration with Sam Harris, I now point to several analyses that support my contentions. First is an article in The Nation about the return of so-called scientific racism and speaks directly about Charles Murray, Sam Harris, and Andrew Sullivan, all of whom are embroiled in the issue. Second is an article in The Baffler about constructing arguments ex post facto to conform to conclusions motivated in advance of evidence. Most of us are familiar with the the constructed explanation, where in the aftermath of an event, pundits, press agents, and political insiders propose various explanatory narratives to gain control over what will eventually become the conventional understanding. Published reports such as the Warren Commission‘s report on the assassination of JFK is one such example, and I daresay few now believe the report and the consensus that it presents weren’t politically motivated and highly flawed. Both linked articles above are written by Edward Burmilla, who blogs at Gin and Tacos (see blogroll). Together, they paint a dismal picture of how reason and rhetoric can be corrupted despite the sheen of scientific respectability.

Third is an even more damaging article (actually a review of the new anthology Trump and the Media) in the Los Angeles Review of Books by Nicolas Carr asking the pointed question “Can Journalism Be Saved?” Admittedly, journalism is not equivalent with reason or rationalism, but it is among several professions that employ claims of objectivity, accuracy, and authority. Thus, journalism demands both attention and respect far in excess of the typical blogger (such as me) or watering-hole denizen perched atop a barstool. Consider this pullquote:

… the flaws in computational journalism can be remedied through a more open and honest accounting of its assumptions and limitations. C. W. Anderson, of the University of Leeds, takes a darker view. To much of the public, he argues, the pursuit of “data-driven objectivity” will always be suspect, not because of its methodological limits but because of its egghead aesthetics. Numbers and charts, he notes, have been elements of journalism for a long time, and they have always been “pitched to a more policy-focused audience.” With its ties to social science, computational journalism inevitably carries an air of ivory-tower elitism, making it anathema to those of a populist bent.

Computational journalism is contrasted with other varieties of journalism based on, say, personality, emotionalism, advocacy, or simply a mad rush to print (or pixels) to scoop the competition. This hyperrational approach has already revealed its failings, as Carr reports in his review.

What I’m driving at is that, despite frequent appeals to reason, authority, and accuracy (especially the quantitative sort), certain categories of argumentation fail to register on the average consumer of news and information. It’s not a question of whether arguments are right or wrong, precisely; it’s about what appeals most to those paying even a modest bit of attention. And the primary appeal for most (I judge) isn’t reason. Indeed, reason is swept aside handily when a better, um, reason for believing something appears. If one has done the difficult work of acquiring critical thinking and reasoning skills, it can be quite the wake-up call when others fail to behave according to reason, such as with acting against enlightened self-interest. The last presidential election was a case in point.

Circling back so something from an earlier blog, much of human cognition is based on mere sufficiency: whatever is good enough in the moment gets nominated then promoted to belief and/or action. Fight, flight, or freeze is one example. Considered evaluation and reason are not even factors. Snap judgments, gut feelings, emotional resonances, vibes, heuristics, and Gestalts dominate momentary decision-making, and in the absence of convincing countervailing information (if indeed one is even vulnerable to reason, which would be an unreasonable assumption), action is reinforced and suffices as belief.

Yet more in part 3 to come.